Unmasking the Source
In his reminiscence about the Washington Post's brief ban on attending backgrounders some 30 years ago, Ben Bagdikian said, "There is a fundamental reason why a ban on unnamed sources is impractical" ("When the Post Banned Anonymous Sources," August/September). Actually there is more than one, and he touches on another crucial reason in his preceding paragraphs. The other major news organizations failed to follow suit, and the Post got beat on important stories. So the policy was killed. Bagdikian refers to it as an "experiment," but neither his piece nor my memory sustains that. I think Ben Bradlee was dead serious when he ordered Post reporters to walk out of news briefings where the source was not named. But even he could not sustain the policy when the competition left him isolated.
The same craven behavior by the editors of the national dailies killed the National News Council in the same era. If that noble attempt at self-criticism had survived, I believe newspapers would not have nearly the credibility problems that plague us today. Since no other institution can do it, a sincere internal effort to identify and censure the sinners among us would have gone a long way to reassure our readers that we really practice what we preach.
Bagdikian is correct, of course, when he says that the use of anonymous sources is sometimes a vital tool but is abused by overuse, particularly in Washington. I was the diplomatic correspondent for the Baltimore Sun in those days. (No, I don't recall joining in a walkout, but I don't recall having the opportunity, either.) I saw instances when other reporters seemed to me to be using the "high administration sources" rubric simply to inflate the importance of a story in the competition for page-one space. The use of anonymous sources is like lighting a fire: essential for some tasks but dangerous when not done with care.
One amusing sidelight: During the brief ban, Israel's then-ambassador, Yitzhak Rabin, spoke to a luncheon of the Foreign Press Club — on background, naturally. The Post ran an article on the speech without naming Rabin but wrapping the story around an otherwise unexplained photo of him.
Retired editor and reporter